Shea Reviews – Spider-Man

Note: This review contains mild spoilers for Marvel’s Spider-Man.

Spider-Man Review

It’s 2004 and I’m swinging through the streets of New York City, running up buildings, saving citizens from their small problems, and webbing the hell out of bad guys. In my mind, no other game will ever capture so perfectly what it might feel like to be Spider-Man. And for 14 years, no other game did — until Insomniac’s Spider-Man.

Spider-Man is one of my all-time favorite superheroes, which I know is a common opinion. Peter Parker represents the power nerd most of us comic book readers have inside of us, but he also happens to be a ripped badass that can confidently rock spandex and make out with hot chicks. At least that’s what high school me cared about.

30-year-old me (yikes) connects more with his unabashed positivity and optimism, as well as his insane intelligence and the confidence that Spider-Man gives him that he doesn’t always feel in his real life. Plus, I like his dad joke sense of humor.

Just like Spider-Man Homecoming, Insomniac’s Spider-Man captures all of these minute character details that make Peter such a powerful representative of who I wanted to be as a teenager. And, even more impressive, the studio managed to make a damn fine game that surpasses even the classic Spider-Man 2 as the definitive Spider-Man video game experience.

Familiar Yet Fun

To be clear, nothing about Insomniac’s Spider-Man feels all that “new.” This is an open world ass open world game with combat clearly inspired from the Batman: Arkham series. There’s the Spider-Man acrobatics and witty banter, but the gameplay still feels familiar. However, all of these elements are so well done that the game becomes more than the sum of its parts.

Spider-Man Review: Combat
Spider-Man’s combat feels fresh despite its mimicking of the Batman: Arkham series.

Just like in Batman: Arkham, Spider-Man’s gadgets are super fun to use in combat and add that additional layer of customizability and experimentation that keep the fighting fresh until the closing hours. From web bombs to electric webs to a spider-drone that zaps bad guys, it was always fun to try different tactics with each enemy group.

The actual hand to hand combat is slightly less successful — especially in the closing hours of the game — because there is so much going on that it’s difficult to successfully dodge and focus on single enemies. I wouldn’t say the game ever becomes truly challenging on normal difficulty, but there are definitely some fights that become information overload.

Playing as a stealthy Spider-Man is far more rewarding than I anticipated. Jumping from rafter to rafter and webbing guys as they search for you is fantastic, and the sound made by clanking a robber’s head against a metal beam before stringing him up with webs is oh-so-satisfying. It’s a bit of a bummer that almost all stealth sequences will eventually force you into combat, but I understand Insomniac’s desire to have stealth not make the game easy mode at every encounter.

On the other hand, there are several forced stealth sequences where you play as MJ and Miles Morales, and these pretty much all suck. The first one is pretty innocuous, but each one after becomes more difficult and adds layers of complexity like hacking electronics and making noise to distract thugs. Insomniac obviously added these to create a break in the web-swinging and fisticuffs — as well as get MJ and Miles more involved in the story — but they just aren’t fun.

Spider-Man Review: MJ and Miles
MJ and Miles are great sidekicks for Peter at different points in the story.

Speaking of breaking up the normal gameplay loop, there is a ton of stuff to do in Spider-Man. I enjoyed most of it, including chasing down pigeons for an old homeless man, completing unique gameplay challenges in support of Harry Osborn’s science experiments, matching line puzzles to create new elements, and age-old combat and stealth challenges, but there is a lot of game here. That’s only a negative if — like me — you’re a completionist that wants to unlock all of the Spider-Man suits and get the platinum trophy. It’s easy enough to only engage in the side content that you enjoy if you don’t care about such things. But that does bring me to another small criticism.

Tokens are a Problem

You unlock most Spidey suits and upgrade your gadgets by completing challenges and getting tokens. Each different type of challenges gets you a different type of token. And each upgrade or unlock requires a different combination of token types. You probably see where I’m going with this one.

If I want to unlock the Spider-Man 2099 suit, I need two tokens from taking down criminal bases (combination of stealth and combat), four crime tokens (from stopping emergent crimes like someone stealing a car or trying to kidnap a civilian), and four research tokens (from beating different challenges set out by Harry Osborn). But maybe I really don’t like taking down the bases or doing the research stations. Then I either can’t get the suit or I have to do something I don’t want to do.

If it were up to me, I’d have made all the side activities give the same kind of token, just in different amounts. You can track down a bunch of Peter’s old backpacks, which is pretty easy. So make those worth two tokens. Taking down a crime base is much more difficult, so those are worth 12 tokens. Then a suit might cost 10 tokens, but you can get them by engaging in whatever side content you want. You can find five backpacks or beat one crime base. If you want all the suits, you’ll still have to do pretty much everything, but it wouldn’t arbitrarily lock someone out of a suit because they didn’t want to track down enough pigeons to get the pigeon tokens.

I only make a big stink about this because all of the suits are awesome and call back to the comics in really fun ways. For me, the noir suit and punk suit are the coolest overall and it isn’t close, but I tried to wear a different one each time I booted up the game just for the fun of it. Each suit also comes with a unique powerup like health regen or better stealth, but you can mix and match the abilities with any suit — which was a smart move for the sake of customizability.

Spider-Man Review: Sinister Six
The villains in Spider-Man make for great boss battles, but are under-utilized during the story.

Peter Parker’s Story

The story in Spider-Man was perhaps the biggest surprise. From the trailers and pre-release gameplay, it was fair to assume the game would focus on some of the smaller villains. While true, the story also builds toward a more expected team-up of bad guys. If you’re familiar at all with Spider-Man villains, you probably know what I’m referencing. But it’s actually Peter’s relationships with MJ and Miles that stand out in my memory of the game. Insomniac has always done such a great job with light-hearted humor in games, but with Spider-Man, they show a knack for real human drama and emotion.

Peter in particular struggles with both small issues like paying rent and spending time with Aunt May, but also much larger problems like his strained relationship with ex-girlfriend MJ and growing concerns for mentor Doctor Octavius. Peter is post-college in this game, but he’s clearly still dealing with the “coming of age” challenges to which we can all relate.

I will say that the story takes a bit to get going. I was having such a great time swinging around the city and fighting bad guys that the slower story moments felt like they were getting in the way. But by the mid-way point, I was fully engaged.

And boy, the ending of Spider-Man really goes some places. The back third of the game is actually quite dark in tone, which kind of goes against Peter’s stubborn positivity. I don’t have a good solve for this problem, but the sad resolution to some of the story beats connected less with me because they were such a sharp tonal shift from what came before.

Final Thoughts

To touch on the sights and sounds briefly, Spider-Man looks and sounds great. This version of New York City feels a bit sterile at times because you spend so much time flying around skyscrapers and not on the ground, but that’s a small issue. More possible interactions with passerby would have helped, though.

But playing the game on my PS4 Pro in HDR on a 55-inch 4K television was pretty insane. The facial animations aren’t quite Naughty Dog quality, but the colors are vibrant, the characters are expressive, and I don’t remember a single framerate dip in my 40-plus hours.

Insomniac’s version of Peter Parker has a “no matter what, everything will work out” attitude towards life that is refreshing in this age of class struggles, racial and gender issues, and political decentralization. Video games don’t only have to be seen as a medium for escape from real-life problems, but Spider-Man serves as a great example that escapism doesn’t have to be trivial and shallow.

While the game itself doesn’t do much in the way of creating new mechanics or trying new systems, it executes on all of its pieces very well. This is the new definitive Spider-Man video game, and I can’t wait to see what comes next.


Spider-Man Review: Logo

Check out my ranking of the Spider-Man films and all of my video game reviews!

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